I read this book (courtesy of NetGalleys) while in London and on the way home, so it was a while ago now, and it’s high time I say something about it. It tells the story of a couple, Sabine and George Harwood, who move from England to Trinidad in order to advance George’s career. They don’t know it at the time, but they are on the last ship to bring British colonials into the country (Sabine is French, but has married an Englishman). Shortly after they arrive, change begins to happen: Trinidad eventually gains its independence under their charismatic although ultimately disappointing leader, Eric Williams, and the white colonists will lose their status and power.
The novel has an interesting structure: for the first third or so, it takes place in 2006 and portrays an elderly George and Sabine, describing how their marriage has evolved, how their children have turned out, and what their lives have become. After this section, we move back in time to read about their arrival in Trinidad in 1956, and we follow them in later sections through the 1960s and 70s. This backwards structure works well to show how George and Sabine end up where they do: we see the results of their lives in Trinidad first, and then we look back to the causes. So we read about their unhappiness — their overwhelming feeling of listlessness and pointlessness, their estrangement from their children, their isolation, their sense that it could have been completely different — and then we turn to their younger selves and read about the series of decisions that led to their remaining in Trinidad even when nearly all other British families left. They never intended to stay longer than a couple years, or at least that’s what Sabine believed. She was always eager to go, but George fell in love with the place and resisted a move. Eventually, they become part of the island and could no longer fit in back in England if they were to return.
The novel tells the story of their marriage, and also of the political and social changes happening in Trinidad, and the two stories come together in the figure of Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister. In the 2006 section, George finds a collection of letters Sabine has written to Williams — tons of letters, describing her life, her marriage, and her feelings about Williams’s administration. These letters bewilder George — why did she write him so much? Did she know him? It turns out that she met him a few times and they had a couple conversations, but mostly the relationship was carried on in her head. Writing the letters was her way of making sense of the changes happening in her life and in the country, and also of getting a little bit of revenge on George, who was unfaithful to her. Williams is one of the book’s main symbols: a symbol of hope at first, of possibility, and then of disappointment and disillusionment. He becomes a way for Sabine to focus and express her hopes and then her anger.
The other main symbol is the green bicycle of the title: the bicycle Sabine used to ride to explore the city and meet her husband after his day’s work. This was a highly unconventional thing to do, although Sabine didn’t know this at first; she thought she was just enjoying herself and being free-spirited, when she was getting a reputation that stuck with her for being different from all the other British women. As Sabine loses her youthful energy and happiness, the bicycle appears less and less until it is abandoned.
Roffey does a very good capturing the complexity of the situation and telling the two stories — the personal one and the political one — so that while they are connected, they are not conflated or collapsed into each other. The Harwood marriage is powerfully affected by the political context, but it’s not simply a way of making a political point, and the political context takes on a life on its own and is not merely a device with which to tell the story of a marriage. And Roffey also describes the landscape of Trinidad beautifully. In fact, both George and Sabine personify that landscape and talk to it so that it becomes a kind of character in its own right.
Roffey does so much well here, and I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t have that feeling of excitement about it that I always hope for. I didn’t fall in love with it, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think I’m feeling some boredom with contemporary fiction — not all of it, but with more straightforwardly realistic contemporary novels. I suppose that while Roffey’s use of language is accomplished, it didn’t bowl me over in the way I want. But there is much to praise in this book, still, and it kept me good company while I was traveling.